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Advertising is Cultural Pollution, and we’ve put it in charge of the internet

Arguably the most pervasive a phenomenon mankind has ever invented, advertising permeates every aspect of our daily lives. Almost every moment of your waking lives you will be bombarded by some company’s brand.

And yet, advertising adds no value to our cultural lives. In fact, it extracts value. Advertising demands our attention when we want to focus on something else. When we want to watch a TV show, advertising interrupts us. When we listen to the radio, advertising breaks the flow. Almost everywhere we go advertising disrupts up the landscape and intrudes in our visual field.

Advertising is visual pollution

Advertising interrupts our lives without asking, and urges us in to buying stuff we don’t need. It has only negative value and contributes nothing worthwhile to our lives.

Advertising Is In Your Head

Increasingly, as marketers become skilled in manipulating the subconscious mind, advertising affects our very thoughts. We are ‘primed’ for specific behaviours through advertising. It ‘triggers’ us to perform an action desired by the advertiser. We are guinea pigs obediently walking through the advertisers’ consumerist maze.

Even here advertisement is not satisfied. It wants to extract even more from us, and does so by harvesting our data. Everything we do that can be measured, is being measured, and subsequently sold to advertisers to ensure their ads are even more effective in making us buy stuff.

Our vision, our hearing, our attention, our thoughts, and our actions – all are increasingly intruded upon, manipulated, and harvested, so that we can be optimised to become more efficient consumers and buy more stuff that we don’t need.

Advertising has been tacked on to everything, everywhere, becoming an omnipresent form of cultural pollution.

And in the past decade advertising has become the driving force behind one of the most important inventions humankind has ever achieved: the internet.

The Web as an Advertising Engine

The internet is, at its core, the most egalitarian system ever devised. In theory anyone can use it to their own advantage and help improve their lives. However, due to the encroachment of advertising, the internet is now just another value-extractor in our day to day existence.

Every article we read online, every app we use, every website we visit – advertising is there, waiting for us, ready to extract our attention, manipulate our thoughts, and harvest our data.

The continued development and usefulness of the internet is fully at the mercy of this foul commercial noise, ensuring that everything that comes next will be optimised for maximum advertising value.

The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads.

– Jeff Hammerbacher

Just look at the tools and platforms you use the most in your daily internet lives. When you Google something, ads are the first results you see. Catch up with your friends on Facebook, ads interrupt your stream. Reading the news, you truggle to ignore the ads above, below, beside, and increasingly right in the middle of the content you’re trying to absorb.

Google AdWords

Advertising is everywhere online, and ads are designed in such a way that you simply cannot ignore them. Real content is obscured by manipulative advertising and, increasingly, the boundaries between advertising and content are blurred.

The Alternative Approach

There are precious few exceptions. But those exceptions are worth pointing out. Invariably, where ads are absent, you pay yourself. Content behind paywalls rarely feature ads. Tools that require a paid subscription almost never dare show you an ad. A platform that treats you as its customer doesn’t want to annoy you, so advertising is out of the question.

If something is ‘free to use’ it comes with a price of its own, and increasingly I find myself unwilling to pay that price. I’m tired of being interrupted, subconsciously primed, and data-mined. I want to be in control of my own mind, my own thoughts, my own actions.

Maybe it’s time we stop being the product that’s being sold to advertisers, and start being the customer that get treated accordingly. Maybe then we can exert some control over the direction the internet is heading in.

Instead of helplessly standing by as more platforms emerge to extract value from our lives, we can ensure the internet starts producing more systems and tools that actually add value.

The downside is, we’ll have to part with some of our hard-earned money. This would then ensure the internet becomes more elitist, as the ‘haves’ would be able to buy their way in, and the ‘have-nots’ would be left out in the cold.

Data Has Value

But that doesn’t have to be the case. In his book “Who Owns The Future” Jaron Lanier proposes that the data currently extracted from us by the platforms we use, to sell to advertisers, should come at a cost for the extractors.

Lanier argues that because it is intrinsically our data that is being harvested, we should be compensated for it. Our behavioural and demographical data has value, so we should be rewarded for sharing that data.

Personal data

Free use of a valuable platform counts as a form of compensation. If you want to use a platform for free, you can do so, in exchange for your personal data. If you want to keep your data private, you should be allowed to do so, in exchange for a usage fee.

Those who can afford to, can pay for advertising-free use of the internet. Those who can’t are, unfortunately, free to be bombarded with precisely targeted advertising that will manipulate them in to buying stuff. It’s still a two-tier system, but a slightly less exclusionary one.

Perhaps that’s the best we can hope for. At least until the very foundations of our economic model come crumbling down, and we’ll have to rethink the whole thing.

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